Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are modernists. Air embrace the new. Each album is a move away from the last and a journey towards something else. Their music is intellectually stimulating yet intuitively simple; elegiac and triumphal; beyond pop and yet resolutely of it, too.
Yet Air are no academically dry intellectuals either. If their music is full of French-style clichés about boy meeting girl, it’s done so playfully, with a knowing wink. They know their way round a good joke and can deadpan for the Republic.
Pocket Symphony is their fourth studio album proper and the follow up to 2004’s Talkie Walkie (although if you include their Allessandro Baricco City Reading collaboration, the Virgin Suicides soundtrack and their recent Charlotte Gainsbourg production 5:55 they could claim seven). It’s also the fourth album they have done in conjunction with English producer Nigel Godrich (“he’s so cool, he could be French,” quips Air’s Nicolas).
Pocket Symphony is, despite being a distinct step away from orthodox pop modes, a return to some of pastoral atmospherics of their now seminal debut album Moon Safari. Nicolas puts it thus: “This album is different. We decided to go back to the soundtrack music-style, with more instrumentals and less songs.”
Yet paradoxically it’s a far cry from the series of pop hits they enjoyed in 1998, with clear notes of minimalism among the clingy hooks and deceptively complex piano lines. “Increasingly, we are trying to get away from the pop sound,” says Jean-Benoit. “I suppose we are influenced by modern composers like Philip Glass or even early 20th century classical composers like Ravel or Erik Satie. The way we work is that we improvise together. It’s like magic because we always have something in common, like a new direction or desire, each time when we write a song. There’s always a conscious desire to reject the previous album.”
The most obvious difference from previous recordings are the Eastern influences – most evident on “One Hell Of A Party” – but throughout the whole set. Taking Talkie Walkie closing track “Alone In Kyoto” as the catalyst (you can hear clear influences from the British pop group Japan), the duo built Pocket Symphony around this precedent. Nicolas spent a year learning Far Eastern classical instruments the koto and shamisen, through an Okinawa master. “We found her through the Japanese embassy,” explains Nicolas. “It took me a year to learn them.” And, according to a deadpan Nicolas, it was his Muse (what we in the US might refer to as a girlfriend) who persuaded him to pursue this direction: “We were at Café de Flore in Paris. We were drunk and she told me we should do something linked with Japan and its culture.”
Despite this organic approach, they have been embracing the joys of modern technology, seeing it as the tool that it is rather than the straitjacket it often becomes. “Now the computer is really important for us,” claims Jean-Benoit. “To start with we were totally opposed to this process because we wanted to use only analogue keyboards. But increasingly we had to admit that you can’t do everything with analogue keyboards. Also, in France, we have this modern research centre called IRCAM and it’s run by Pierre Boulez, the composer, and they are constantly inventing new plug-ins so we’ve been playing with them.”
The most surprising additions to the Air canon are the collaborations with Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker, though as the pair explain this was not part of a grand plan. “We met them when we produced the Charlotte Gainsbourg album, because they were writing the lyrics,” says Nicolas. “It wasn’t like, “oh let’s get some people in, who can we feature?” We met and the vibe was cool and we wrote the songs together.” Given ample Air time with which to play, Hannon and Cocker deliver brilliantly understated performances, yet still not without grit and attack and, in Jarvis’ case, quiet menace.
Pocket Symphony is Air at their most sparse, the excess trimmed to the bone as they seek to reach a simple purity in what they do, aided in their efforts by producer Nigel Godrich who, according to Nicolas, “helps us to accept simplicity, otherwise we might make the songs too complicated.” It is these delicate palettes that make the album such a delight, like the smoky aromas of Lapsang Suchong. “It’s weird because now I’m in such a different mood,” chuckles Nicolas. “Now I really have new ideas for another album. It’s cool. It’s good to do things to get rid of them. Then you have space in your mind to welcome new ideas. It’s a cleansing thing.”
Or as Jean-Benoit claims: “You can’t fight against the future.” Modernists, indeed.
For more information contact: Alison Tarnofsky 212.886.7573 firstname.lastname@example.org
POCKET SYMPHONY TRACK-BY-TRACK
Space Maker Nicolas: We wanted to have this idea of the album literally as a pocket symphony so you imagine you’re going into the opera and the lights go down and then this starts. It’s not the greatest song on the album, but it’s the best one to start with. Jean-Benoit: This was a joke title from pace maker. Hilarious, huh?
Once Upon A Time Nicolas: It’s a story of boys meet girl. A fairy tale. Jean-Benoit is singing. I don’t like my voice, really. Jean-Benoit: We like the fairy tales.
One Hell Of A Party Nicolas: Well, you’d have to talk to Jarvis about the lyrics. It’s the kind of song where we really wanted to experiment with the instruments. And I played the piano exactly the way that Sakamoto would play on it. Jean-Benoit: This is the sort of party where you are older and drunk and you are looking at the mess and wondering what happened. So we wanted the track to be very empty, skeletal and dark.
Napalm Love Nicolas: It’s about the words you use to talk about love. If you list all the words that are used to talk about love they are often horrible, like falling in love, burning for someone, like it’s really destructive.
Mayfair Song Nicolas: It’s a song we wrote here (Mayfair Studios) while Nigel was mixing. So we set up a little studio in the other room, we were recording. When we did Premiers Symptomes we used to do a bassline, get a vibe and that was it. We forgot how to do that and we wanted to get back to that simplicity. Nigel told us: “Do what you’re good at”. Jean-Benoit: We made this track very quickly, it only took one day.
Left Bank Nicolas: This is a song I wrote in a hotel room after a lovely weekend with a girl. And then Monday morning she left without saying a word and I wrote it on my guitar, very simple. Crazy women French girls! Jean-Benoit: Nicolas and I are always talking about this non-existent girl that we want to meet, that we’d like to have in our bed, the one who left, recently. In our minds we say to her, “come back I love you, I’ve been a naughty boy”. This is our obsession right now.
Photograph Nicolas: Very cinematic music. When we started with Premiers Symptomes we really liked Blaxploitation soundtrack music; that groove, suspenseful music and we wanted to go back to this. We’ve come back to this grooving thing that we had lost. Jean-Benoit: The original title of this was Message For A Rock Star and the idea was this: ok you are a rock star and God is also a fan of yours and he wants to have your autograph. You are such a rock star that even God wants you.
Mer Du Japon Nicolas: Haiku music. J’ai perdu la raison dans la mer du Japon. I lost my mind in the sea of Japan. Just one simple line. Jean-Benoit: When you go to Los Angeles or Japan there is something special in the air, and we wanted to capture this special Pacific touch. It’s almost like a perfume. It sounds a little bit like a French band Taxi Girl, Mirwais’ first band. We were big fans of this band and there is a similar feel in the production.
Lost Message Nicolas: It’s so Satie and so French. It sounds so different. Jean-Benoit: In my mind I see a sort of fresh modern Emmanuelle soundtrack. It’s really erotic.
Somewhere Between Waking And Sleeping Nicolas: This is the Neil Hannon collaboration. I love this song so much. We wrote this for Charlotte.
Redhead Girl Nicolas: This is my muse. Except she’s not a redhead. It’s very conceptual. Jean-Benoit: It’s about Perfume, the book by Patrick Suskind, it’s about the clichés that redheads have a special smell. It’s like a legend.
Night Sight Nicolas: This is my favourite track on the album. It’s very conceptual, because you have this Rhodes with four notes and a synth with seven notes and they have these circular patterns that occasionally merge. It’s a massage for the mind! Jean-Benoit: We wanted to do a sort of modern track with an irregular pattern on the keyboard. It’s totally improvised. It sounds like a slow chemical reaction, like oxidisation